By Theophilus Ilevbare*
These days, nothing strikes a bout of panic and paranoia than the thought of Ebola Virus Disease. It’s been decades since a disease or calamity of such proportions threatened our relationships, businesses, sports and our very existence.
In the midst of all the trepidation came a ray of hope – an experimental secret serum, manufactured by California based Biopharmaceutical giant, Mapp. It has been administered to two Americans and a Spanish Priest (first European), all infected in Liberia. The Priest lost the battle against Ebola despite receiving the experimental solution after he was flown back to his country, Spain. However, the health of Dr Kent Brantly and missionary aid worker, Nancy Writebol, has improved tremendously to reinforce the efficacy of the drug, ZMapp. After the malady had claimed the lives of over a 1000 people in Africa with just about the same number presently inflicted with the disease, the American government in collaboration with the World Health Organisation (WHO), on compassionate grounds, sent experimental samples to Liberia for trials on Ebola patients.
It is puzzling why over a thousand Africans had to die before talks of a vaccine hit the airwaves. It is safe to conclude that had the two Americans not contracted the virus we won’t be close to any drug of any sort. Before now, the research for a cure has been shrouded in secrecy by the Americans. That the ailment had no cure and is a fast moving outbreak gives a technical knockout to the argument of ethics – that the vaccine should first be tested on compatriots of the researchers and manufacturers in America.
The laboratories of American pharmaceutical companies were not short of promising research experiments of vaccines or drugs. They weren’t eager to develop a vaccine if they aren’t sure who would buy it. With just over a thousand deaths, it’s just a blip compared to the mortality rate of other diseases. For instance, Malaria kills a child every minute. Compare the death rate of Malaria with other deadly diseases you’ll discover why GlaxoSmithKline and other Pharmaceutical giants are making billion dollar investments, researching and working day and night for vaccines for malaria. Ebola is horrifying, but it’s also sporadic — between the big 2001 outbreak and this one, only a few dozen people have gotten sick every year or two. The current outbreak has spread among a handful of poor countries that all have weak health infrastructure. America and the rest of the developed world knew the deadly disease had no known cure but since it has mainly being affecting only Africans in several outbreaks since 1976 it wasn’t worth any serious research investment.
Ebola vaccine not the answer?
But even if any of the drugs on trial works, it would be a stretch to say we could confidently use it to prevent another Ebola outbreak. The experimental Ebola vaccine, ZMapp, or any other one for that matter, it appears might not even be the answer to the ravaging strain of the virus. A well-funded and researched vaccine would have done the magic like it was the case for smallpox and polio which put an abrupt end to outbreaks.
The exigency of a cure for the scourge has made relevant authorities approve the use of some experiment solutions on compassionate grounds. Anyone receiving a rushed mass vaccine like this is putting an enormous amount of trust in Pharmaceutical companies and the government because there is no way to know the long term effects of the disease. It can’t be easily ascertained at the moment. The fears of its long term effect exist no matter how infinitesimal it might seem. The memory of all the kids, who now suffer from a severe form of narcolepsy due to the swine flu vaccine that was hurriedly created a few years ago, remains evergreen.
Before we can say uhuru, the efficacy of such a drug should cut across the various strains of Ebola. The current outbreak is the Zaire virus, but previous outbreaks were Sudan and Cote d’Ivoire strains. The drugs being bandied about might not be the quintessential Ebola elixir that we crave. Most of the experimental drugs are solutions to fight the Zaire virus strain. These experimental drugs can kill the present virus in the body system and prevent it from infecting others but it does not in any way make us completely immune from the virus, that is, another outbreak.
Containing the scourge would have been much easier with vaccination at the early stage of the outbreak; it is difficult to stop the epidemic in fast moving diseases like Ebola. According to Community Health professionals, most vaccines take a few weeks to provide immunity, and even then, they don’t always control the disease spread. A recent WHO statement submitted that even if any of the drug or vaccine is successful, it will take at least six months to contain the outbreak.
During the early weeks of the pestilence, villagers in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea blocked streets, preventing doctors and health workers from gaining access to Ebola patients. This will pose a problem to vaccination if it eventually becomes available. We heard on good report that at a point, soldiers were deployed to hospitals to prevent locals from forcefully taking away Ebola patients. There are still remote villages and communities in Nigeria that resist polio vaccination. They see it as an unwarranted intrusion from the ‘white man’. Imagine what would happen if we tried to pre-emptively vaccinate thousands of people who not only are skeptical of Western medicine but have never heard of Ebola.
Fighting the epidemic must involve a multi-pronged drug. ZMapp serum, other drugs from Canada and the one by some Nigerian doctors in the diaspora, focuses on eradicating the disease after infection. What the global community needs is a vaccine to prevent the infection from getting into the body, that is the development of antibodies within the subject rather than injecting them from outside the body.
The serum is by no means the end of Ebola but it leads us away from ineffective containment of the deadly virus disease. The use of vaccine or drug might not be the fastest way we bring the spread of this highly infectious malady to a stop. Nevertheless, the Ebola story is not all gloomy as 40 percent of victims are surviving.
For now, Ebola patients will jump at the chance to live free of the virus than worry about any side effects in the long term or another outbreak in the future.
This is hoping that these limited doses of the vaccine will not distract and ultimately derail effort to curb the frenzied outbreak using tried, tested and true methods like rapid identification and isolation of the sick and providing basic supportive care for patients, finding and educating who’s been in contact with them and strict hospital infection control. With these, Ebola can slowly but surely be driven away.
Please follow the writer on twitter @tilevbare.